Artillery. From the Crimean to WWI
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
Artillery went through an interesting transformation between the Crimean War and the First World War. Ammunition went through a significant transformation from muzzle loaded cannonballs to spinning projectiles that broke through the sound barrier. Guns were becoming larger and more powerful due to advancements in metallurgy. This change was also reflected on the type of tactics that were being used to help fully exploit artillery to its full potential. Near the end of WWI, artillery was being used to aid the advancement of troops in the battlefield as well as taking out targets that were both line-of-sight and indirect. These technological advancements combined together constructively to help deliver a higher mortality rate for both sides by the end of the Great War. It is interesting to note that some of the features found in some of today’s guns actually date back to some of the early guns such as the case of rifling with the Parrot gun, recoil absorption in the Mark XII and shell design in the French 75mm. The following explores these developments in depth and goes on to justify how they shaped and changed the face of war. Some of these developments have actually shaped outcomes even after the Great War but they will not be explored.
It was evident that artillery was becoming more accurate between the Crimean War and the Great War. Two major developments combined to help push forward for this increase in accuracy, rifling and a projectile design. Rifling has its own unique contribution. What it effectively does is that it allows a projectile to spin about its neutral axis, increasing its stability and the range of the projectile. Early examples of rifling can be found in the parrot gun and can be found today in all modern artillery.
Of course, the improved accuracy of the Parrot gun could not have been achieved without the right ammunition. The ‘cone-shaped’ projectiles of today look very similar to the very early ones that were fired by the parrot gun. The only disadvantage the Parrot had over the Napoleon was that it did not incorporate grapeshot rounds due to the modification of the barrel but this was simply modified by effectively adding casting shrapnel into the projectile which was being fired. This simple change in design helped phase cannonballs out of existence.
Design modifications in terms of metallurgy and materials have helped add strength of the gun and even save production costs in some cases. In the 1800’s, guns such as the Parrot guns had a few advantages over Napoleon which was cast out of bronze. The fact that it was made out of iron made it significantly cheaper than the Napoleon counterpart which was made out of bronze. Another advantage the Parrot has was it was possible to rifle as this process did not work with bronze due to its soft nature. By WW1, steel barrels became the norm as it has a higher tensile strength than iron. Alloying has helped in making artillery more resistant to cracking and fatigue in addition to its lightweight made steel’s properties ideal for artillery for years to come.
In the late 1800’s, it was evident that guns had a significant increase in the rate of fire. Recoil absorption and advancement in shell design have helped contribute to this and examples of this can be found in the Mark XII one-pounder and the French 75mm which had a few things on common.
Bombardiers in the past had to fire then realign the gun in the hope that the sights would rest on the original target. These guns helped speed up reloading in two ways. Firstly, the pneumatic recoil mechanism deployed by the gun absorbed the shock of the gun and remained on target, making it easier to keep firing on the same target. Secondly, the ammunition was pre-packaged. Previously with early cannons, the gunpowder and the cannonball had to be muzzle loaded separately into the muzzle which was time consuming. The ammunition that these guns had contained the propellant, charge and all in one package and this practically identical to artillery rounds found today.
Strategically, artillery helped shape out the war by helping develop tactics. The concept of the creeping barrage was deployed along the Western Front. Shells rained down like a protective curtain which moved forward ahead of the troop’s movement, breaking down everything in its path. Indirect fire in combination with direct fire helped to influence the outcome of the war.
WWI artillery developments allowed for indirect fire to be explored. An example of this development was evident in the Big Bertha. Big Bertha’s helped pave the way non-line-of-sight artillery such as mortars as now shells can fly over obstacles and land inside the enemy’s trench. They were so destructive on land that they did not have to directly impact their target in order to create serious damage, causing millions of deaths. The same damage was witnessed with the French 75mm. Shells would often explode into anything from 300 to 500 fragments upon impact and the direction of this shrapnel could simply be directed by modifying the projectile’s trajectory. This damage cannot be even compared to the early grapeshot canisters of the 19th century.
There has been a significant change in environment which has enabled battlefield commanders to shift from Napoleonic tactics deployed during the Crimean war to much more modern tactics during and post WWI. It would be incredibly hard to claim that artillery did not shape or transform the face of war.
Technology helped increase the firing rate of guns and artillery to a level never witnessed before in history. This directly correlated with the level of deaths and the seriousness of injuries that resulted as a direct impact of this technology. The improvement in accuracy and range has been significantly increased. Late 19th century guns were fitted with sophisticated recoil mechanisms that absorbed a significant amount of shock whilst maintaining the barrel on target for the next round. The impact of these improvements can be witnessed in today’s technology and it would be wise to conclude that not only did artillery technology impact the nature of war. From the change in battlefield tactics to the increased mortality for both the military and civilian populations it also left an equally significant impact on history as well. Overall, there has been a few key technological breakthroughs that have paved the way for artillery to play a more vital role in warfare. Rifling and projectile design have helped improve artillery accuracy. Modifications down the breach end have not only increased the rate of fire, tensile strength and the resistance to corrosion, they have also increased the safety of guns by effectively locking out during hang-fire. These factors combined with the pre WWI arms race and military industrialization helped advance artillery at development at an exponential rate making it a necessity not just for the Great War, but also for future wars to come and evidence of this can be seen when one looks at the basic fundamentals that artillery is built on today.